Automated driving – and why you won’t see Aston Martin hopping on the bandwagon

Jack Bolton 22 January 2018

This House Fears The Mass Adoption of Driverless Cars

When one considers the technological inventions and innovations of the last few decades, from the iPhone to online streaming, one would be mistaken for thinking that such advances signal immediate benefits. This is certainly not the case. The Concorde, for instance, once hailed as the next step in commercial aviation, turned out to be a costly and tragic failure. What then are we to make of machines that take our autonomy, and thus our decision making, out of driving?

Not a lot, argued the proposition’s first speaker, the solicitor Nick Freeman (who goes by the moniker of ‘Mr Loophole’, a no doubt flattering sobriquet bestowed upon him by the press). As a society, we are placing “… an undue confidence in the machine,” which causes us to call those that oppose the advance of such machines  “… modern day Luddites standing in the way of progress.” The truth however, Freeman claimed, is that a world in which automatic cars pockmark the road is one in which more deaths will occur, in a world both devoid of justice – a car that chose to sacrifice its driver to save multiple pedestrians could hardly face criminal charges – and worryingly impetuous. As evidenced in the tragic death of Joshua Brown, who was killed when his Tesla Model S collided with a semitrailer truck in 2016, electric cars cannot predict all things, especially human error.

The answer, according to James Arbib, is simple – wait until such vehicles take over the market. No humans, no human error. The first speaker for the opposition spoke passionately about the environmental and economic benefits of such cars – the erosion of gasoline vehicles, which will not be able to compete with their superior counterparts, will lead to an adoption of cheaper, more reliable, and overall safer fleets of communal electric cars. Such vehicles will radically and beautifully change our roads, our cities, and our lives. Our time will be freed up, our environment will be cleaner and our pockets will be larger – Arbib even predicted a ‘trillion-dollar boost’ for the US economy as a result of this proposed ‘robotic taxi service’.

The issue of course is that such wishing is a clear negation of the very real instances in which electric cars have failed us, and are still failing us, noted Professor Natasha Merat. Her argument was the first to go into detail on the five levels of driving automation – 1 being drive assistance, 5 being full automation. It is all very well to idealise the future, but we must reach that future first – and many lives will be lost in getting from our current level of autonomy to any pie in the sky utopia.

Joy Jia replied that the safety levels put in place in current driverless cars mean that accidents are more often the fault of overconfident drivers rather than machine error. Society should not scrap such programs as a result of these instances of recklessness – rather, it would be far better for people to understand and respect their vehicles rather than waste such opportunities by fear mongering. Driverless vehicles are far from perfect, but they cannot get drunk, fall asleep, be distracted by screaming children in the back seat; what they will do is free up our time and ease our traffic congestion.

Tudor Muscat returned to the very difficult question of the ethics surrounding such vehicles. The opposition, he argued feared not cars or AI as they had been portrayed – rather, they “… feared elites ignoring the safety of consumers to increase their profit margin.” Tesla and Google, he noted, fail to give us a worthwhile answer as to the ethical choices of these cars. The future of perfect AI driving, he noted, means existing and patiently waiting in the present with faulty AI which is developed and updated on the fly rather than in a lab. Development in business, he noted, is usually only after disasters have already happened – the Hindenburg disaster perhaps being one of the most prominent examples of this. Our lack of fear of the sufficient development of these cars is leading to public amnesia on the danger such vehicles can pose if we place undue faith in them. Furthermore, such fleets of robotic taxis may well be subject to hacking from competitors or terrorists, making them far from the ideal means of transport.

The penultimate speaker for the opposition, Dr Gero Kempf, Chief Engineer at Jaguar Land Rover, noted the ‘conservative approach’ of the proposition, and, by way of an anecdote involving his young son’s bewilderment at seeing a type writer, noted that progress is happening very fast indeed nowadays. While we as humans still have a perhaps irrational fear of technology (it stands as our 84th biggest fear, he noted, as I pondered whether or not he had caught up with the latest season of Black Mirror), it is not irrational to fear clear and present dangers, such as the loss of life on our roads every year – estimated by the WHO to be as much as 1.25 million worldwide. “We are used to paying costs – that is the purpose of taxation,” but what about “the cost of human lives?” Without change, more will die, and though we cannot predict all things, a better way is so evident, and its flaws so negligible due to the increasing progress in AI development, that it would be wrong to ignore it. Hacking, he noted, can be just as bad for banks and public services, yet we continue to use electronic data storage systems. A fear of driverless cars is natural, but to let that fear override concerns about our safety, our environment, our general wellbeing and our accessibility, is foolhardy.

The CEO of Aston Martin, Dr Andy Palmer, was the next to take the floor. Given his credentials, he first asked that the audience acknowledge him as being ‘far from a modern-day Luddite.’ His involvement with Nissan as their global product chief in America, convinced him that autonomous cars will be made widely available sooner rather than later – and that in doing so, important safety measures will be left by the wayside. The industry is introducing the vehicles “… in an utterly reckless manner.” As to arguments that ‘Britain will lead the way’ in such development, he noted that the contribution of Silicon Valley alone will soon dwarf the UK’s efforts in this field. As for the step from the second level of autonomy to the third, which will be occurring in our lifetime, he warned that this will be tantamount to ‘in the field evolution’, paid for in lives. Given that on average it takes such vehicles seventeen seconds longer to recognise threats than their human drivers, there remains a worrying amount of risk still present.

“Nearly everything in this debate has been said that can be said, but not everyone has said it.” So concluded the final speaker, the lawyer Shanin Specter. “Three people [from the proposition] mentioned that road deaths are caused, in ninety three percent of circumstances, by human error – but none … seem particularly bothered by this.” The public health emergency caused by an analysis of such a statistic, he claimed, warrants an immediate and wholehearted response by the governments of the world to seriously consider the widespread adoption of driverless cars. The promise of a new passenger system saving us time and money is a goal we shouldn’t ignore due to some initial anxiety. Perhaps the loss of jobs might be an issue, but historically, the advance of such technology has usually been good for all – typewriters, for instance, ensured that clerks were busier than ever as more and more branches opened; this was no signal of their profession’s demise, it was in fact a profitable and welcomed enhancement. The Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age, and now we are fast approaching the Automated Age. How should we respond, Specter asked? With a whimper, or a bang?

“Perhaps,” said Dr Palmer, “we take for granted all the good these inventions have brought into our lives. Equally, society as a whole talks today in very generic terms about concepts and ideas, but this future of autonomous transport is fast becoming a reality. Soon, our hypotheticals will become realities. What then, I wonder?”

On a related note, it is perhaps worth mentioning that TS Eliot, who Specter had alluded to in his closing remarks, was far from being an advocate of automated machinery. Though, when I quizzed him about this, Specter made light of the fact that I was writing down his response on an iPhone. The irony did cause me to chuckle a little.